Friday, March 04, 2011

Rural/Urban Brain Drain

Motown to Tree Town weaves together Aaron Renn's (The Urbanophile) discussion of the Brookings mobility bank idea and a review (from Rust Wire) of Edward Glaeser's new book, "Triumph of the City". What drew me to the blog post is a quote from Glaeser used as an introduction:

(P)ublic policy should help poor people, not poor places.–Ed Glaeser, Triumph of the City

I first came across this policy paradigm back in 2007 in this Glaeser authored article, "Can Buffalo Ever Come Back?":

Probably not—and government should stop bribing people to stay there.

That provocative tagline sparked outrage in Buffalo. I doubt any civic booster bothered to digest Glaeser's analysis. For me, his thinking was (still is) a revelation. I had Glaeser on my mind when I blogged about Richard Longworth's review of "Hollowing Out the Middle" and Matthew Kahn's reflections on Appalachian talent outmigration:

The focus is on retention. Longworth isn't suggesting this policy approach. But if you read Kahn's research, then you'll see something similar to the conclusions drawn in "Hollowing Out The Middle." Kahn's point is that these towns and cities in Appalachia are unlikely to attract the kind of talent that most typically leaves the region. The same is true for the rural Midwest. At least, that's the perception.

The popular and most common reaction to "Hollowing Out the Middle" concerned what Longworth termed "civic suicide". That is, rural communities were encouraging young adults to leave. One of the authors, Maria Kefalas, recently attempted to clarify the conclusions drawn in the book:

"We don't want young people to abort their dreams to stay in rural America," she said. Later adding, "What we're saying is you have to stop assuming that the best kids are going to leave and the kids who aren't so good are going to stay and that [the towns] will somehow be OK."

Small towns are facing many more issues outside of the brain drain, like the loss of manufacturing jobs, outdated infrastructure, staggering unemployment, and the inability of small businesses to receive bank loans. But looking at the rural brain drain, Kefalas said it starts with college students.

"Of course kids are going to leave, we don't want them to stop leaving," she said. "But we need to invest in the kids who stay, and make it more tempting for the kids who are thinking of leaving."

That brings me back to Glaeser as his advice for Buffalo:

No mayor ever got reelected by making it easy for his citizens to move to Atlanta, of course, even when that might be a pretty good outcome for the movers themselves. But just because local pols will eagerly seek federal place-based spending doesn’t mean that the feds should comply. A sensible federal approach for upstate New York would invest in people-based policies that improve the economic futures of the children growing up there. Education is the best tool we have to fight poverty. If the children of upstate cities were better educated, then they would earn more as adults—whether they stayed in their hometowns or moved to Las Vegas. And people-based policies may actually motivate states and cities to spend more wisely, in order to retain their newly educated and mobile residents.

I still bristle at the mention of policies designed to retain talent. But the main point is important. Invest in people, not places. If a place is good at developing people, then it will be a desirable residence. That's how I view suburbs. A great school district is a powerful attraction, the long commute and high real estate prices be damned.

For some, the climate or the built environment is more important. Both variables influence migration. However, most people will tolerate bad weather, a high cost of living, and an ugly built environment if it translates into personal or familial development. Migration is still primarily a matter of economics.

What Glaeser doesn't mention is that leaving Buffalo is more advantageous for the individual than staying, controlling for educational attainment. Increasing geographic mobility promotes economic development. Rural communities committing civic suicide understand this. Policymakers need to catch up.

1 comment:

Andy said...

What a pleasant surprise to come across your link to my post, Jim! I just added you to my Google Reader so I can follow you. And I agree 100% -- 'Migration is still primarily a matter of economics.'